by Clover Caroll
The boundless energy and uninhibited hamming of student performers, the pure young singing voices, the surprise of unsuspected talent, the synergy of teamwork, the glory of dreams coming true on the stage in front of you—as Glee fans will tell you, few pleasures bring more delight than high school theater done right. After several years of small-scale (but high quality) productions to taped music or piano accompaniment, the Western Albemarle High School Theatre Ensemble is making a comeback this spring with its production of Annie, to be held on Friday and Saturday, March 18-19 at 7:30 p.m., plus a 2:30 matinee on Sunday, March 20.
The full-scale production, directed by WAHS drama teacher Caitlin Pitts with music direction by Joel Hartshorn, promises to be memorable with a pit orchestra, full sets and costumes, and a combined cast and crew of over 65 students from Western Albemarle High School, Henley Middle School, and Brownsville Elementary School. With this kind of community participation, you’re sure to see a friend in the audience, if not right up there on the stage. Tickets are $6 in advance, $4 for children, and $7 at the door. They will be sold at Over the Moon Bookstore and the Mudhouse in Crozet, as well as at WAHS. Get ready for some recession-busting optimism and joyful, uplifting musical fun right in our own back yard!
“I chose this show because the music is terrific,” noted director Pitts, referring to such upbeat, hum-along numbers as “Tomorrow” and “It’s a Hard Knock Life.” The musical is based on the comic strip Little Orphan Annie by Harold Gray, which in turn took its name from the 1885 poem “Little Orphant Annie” by James Whitcomb Riley. First appearing in 1924 in the New York Daily News, the comic strip reached its greatest popularity in 1937, at the height of the Great Depression. The musical version, set in 1930s New York City, tells the rag-to-riches story of lovable, plucky orphan Annie who is invited as a PR stunt to spend Christmas with billionaire Daddy Warbucks and ends by winning his heart. Problems arise when the degenerate orphanage director, Miss Hannigan, helps her gold-digging brother Rooster and his girlfriend Lily to pose as Annie’s real parents in hopes of cashing in on her good fortune. Adapted into a musical by Thomas Meehan, with lyrics by Martin Charnin and music by Charles Strouse, the show opened on Broadway in 1977 and went on to win seven Tony awards.
Pitts grew up near Barboursville without TV, where she developed a life-long devotion to live theater. “I love the energy of the kids, who are so enthusiastic, motivated, and talented.” After performing with Four County Players in plays such as Five Finger Exercises and A Member of the Wedding, Pitts went on to major in theater at the College of William and Mary, where she directed a number of shows with the Persimmon Tree Players. Pitts spent several years as co-owner of the Juice Bar Collective Restaurant in Berkeley, California, but is happy to be back in her home state and settled in Fluvanna County. During her first year at WAHS, Pitts has a full schedule teaching Drama I – IV plus art and crafts classes, not to mention almost daily rehearsals since the January auditions for Annie. How does she handle the stress? Perhaps by teaching yoga at Ashtanga Yoga and through the help and support of parent volunteers such as Kim Wilder, Cristie Wiggans, and Ron Rammelkamp.
Music director Joel Hartshorn has a similarly challenging teaching load, with band, choir, and jazz band classes plus marching band in the summer and fall. Hailing from Martinsburg, West Virginia, Hartshorn earned his Master’s in music education at JMU where he played the trumpet. Besides teaching music in Strasburg, Virginia and New York summer programs, Hartshorn recently ran the Marine Corps Marathon.
“I love the way this year’s musical has brought the visual and performing arts programs together,” commented Hartshorn, with not only drama, instrumental, and vocal music coached by Henley teacher Eric Betthauser, but also poster and program design by Digital Imaging students Annie Dennis and Briony Collins. The pit orchestra is made up entirely of WAHS students, including the incomparable Ha-Rang Ju and Alex Berr on strings from the growing WAHS orchestra program. Rehearsing Friday mornings before school and Monday evenings, the orchestra is ready to combine with the cast for a magical musical mix.
Sophomore Anna Webster’s sweet, crystal voice will steal your heart in the role of Annie, just as it does Daddy Warbucks,’ played by dashing sophomore Ian Grimshaw. “It’s fun to boss people around and watch them have to do it,” he admits. “Being in the show motivates me to do stuff I wouldn’t normally do.” Junior Paige Rammelkamp, as Grace Farrell, agrees. “I love all the people, the camaraderie, and it’s great to work on a real Broadway show, especially with Ms. Pitts who has experience teaching dramatic acting,” she adds. Paige hopes to major in musical theater at an out-of-state college. Senior Kate Wiggans, who plays Lily St. Regis opposite Gabe Zak as Rooster, got her start on the WAHS stage in Oliver! when she was in the sixth grade. Kate, who will be working with Live Arts this spring on Zombie Prom, plans to combine theater and business in college, with a focus on costume design. “I love the way this show pulls in so many people, students from all the schools, teachers, and all the community volunteers. Everyone is pitching in to support us. Ms. Pitts is awesome, so knowledgeable and experienced.” The villainous Miss Hannigan is vividly portrayed by senior Leah Quesenberry, another veteran of the WAHS stage, who plans to study aviation in college and dreams of becoming a pilot.
Unfortunately, I could not gain an interview with Baker the dog, who plays Annie’s faithful mutt, Sandy. But watch for cameo appearances by such historical luminaries as FDR, Francis Perkins, and Henry Morganthau— some of whom will be played by WAHS teachers and administrators! “People should come,” Ian concludes. “It’s gonna be worth seeing.”